Puerto Rico and the Suits payoff

Thu 02 Sep 2010 12:14 PM

In this post, I consider the game Puerto Rico as a counterexample to Bernard Suits' definition of game. This, finally, is the example that got me started blogging on the subject in the first place. For previous posts, see here, here, and here.

In the last couple of posts, I've been considering Suits' requirement that a game have a prelusory goal - an objective that can be specified independently of the rules of the game.

I dealt first with the example of poker. In comments, Greg suggests that there is an easier way of specifying the prelusory goal than the one I provided. Simply, the goal of a hand of poker is to take the money in the pot. The system of rules which uses cards to decide who gets the money is a voluntary constraint on the means that players may use. Accepting those constraints is constitutive of what it is to be playing poker. So the example fits Suits' definition perfectly.

In the last post, I dealt with the example of chess. Suits has one character say casually that the goal is to immobilize the opponent's king, but that is not right. The goal is to put the opponent's king in checkmate. It seemed prima facie as if characterizing checkmate would require knowing how the pieces move, which would disqualify it as a prelusory goal. However, one can describe checkmate in terms of board positions without reference to how the pieces are allowed to move. Put a king and some other pieces on the chess board, and the position will either be checkmate or it will not. So it qualifies as prelusory.

Consider now the game of Puerto Rico. Designed by Andreas Seyfarth and published in 2002, Puerto Rico is now rated the number one game by members of BoardgameGeek. Puerto Rico has a number of features which Suits clearly could not have had in mind when he was writing Grasshopper, but it is also clearly a game. So it is a nice test case for the definition.

In Puerto Rico, each player develops a separate island. They start plantations and construct buildings, each of which are represented by cardboard rectangles that players put on a board in front of them. By having a combination of plantations and buildings - like coffee fields and a coffee roaster - players produce goods. The goods are represented by small wooden tokens of different colours. Players can sell goods at the trading post or load them onto ships. Selling goods gets you money, represented by card board coins. Shipping goods gets you victory points, represented by other cardboard tokens.

In addition to tokens accumulated during the game, players get victory points for the buildings on their island and also (perhaps) for specific large bonus buildings that can be built. The winner is the player with the most victory points at the end of the game.

It is tempting to say that the goal of the game is simply to accumulate victory points, just as the goal of poker is to take the pot of money at the end. Most of the rules of the game which restrict when you can produce goods, when you can ship them, when you can build, and so on then just appear as voluntary constraints on how you may accumulate victory points.

This would be wrong, because victory points are not like money or colored chips. The pile of money in the middle of the table can be specified independently of poker, but what it means to be a Puerto Rico victory point cannot be specified independently of Puerto Rico.

The same holds true, I suggested, for chess. A horsey piece is not a knight independently of chess. The solution for chess was to note that the state space of the game (the space of possible board positions) was separable from the kinematics (how the pieces were allowed to move). So descriptive 'checkmate' could be given as the prelusory goal in terms of board positions.

The same could be done for 'victory points' if the number of victory points supervened on the game state at the end. In the game Settlers of Catan, for example, the winner is the first player to have ten victory points. Since the things that determine victory points are persistent conditions (such as having cities on the board) then we can specify the victory condition in terms of those states and then go on to limit how those states may be achieved.**

In Puerto Rico, one might claim that the cardboard tokens representing victory points are part of the game state. You win the game if the value of the tokens you have plus the value of your buildings in greatest. However, the goal is not to have the most victory point tokens at the end of the game but to have the most victory points. Shipping goods is one of the goals of the game, because it gets you victory points, and it is something you do at various times during the game. The tokens are a record of the shipping that you did, but they are not the goal itself.

So one might instead say that the goal is to ship goods and build valuable buildings. Again, the concepts of 'shipping' and 'building' are only meaningful within the rules of the game. So they cannot serve as prelusory goals.

One might attempt to carve the rules up into the ones that are sufficient to describe the goal state and the ones that constrain how the goal may be achieved, but I do not see any non-arbitrary way to do so. In chess, there was the natural distinction between board positions and moves. There is no such natural distinction for Puerto Rico.*** So the is no prelusory goal and Suits' definition does not clearly apply.

Nevertheless, there is something interesting to be learned by considering the way in which player action is constrained in Puerto Rico. Shipping is governed by somewhat arcane rules. There are only so many ships for all of the players together, and each ship will only carry one kind of good. If there is already an indigo ship and a sugar ship, for example, then no one will not be able to ship coffee. Unless a player has built a warehouse, they will have to discard most of their coffee. This can be frustrating and feels very unnatural, but it creates a space of strategic possibility. Sometimes it makes sense to start a round of shipping even though you only have a few goods to ship, if your opponents will be locked out of shipping their bumper crops and instead have to discard a bunch.

This reflection does start to look like Suits' notion of voluntary limitations that make the activity possible. So his ideas can be helpful for understanding the features of Puerto Rico that make it both challenging and frustrating. I just don't think Suit's definition succeeds here qua definition.

* Puerto Rico is what gamers have come to call a eurogame or simply a euro. The name comes from the fact that the movement originated in Europe, specifically Germany, and eurogames are sometimes called German-style games. Because the game designer's name appears on the box, they are also sometimes called designer board games. I don't think there's an essence to this, but typical euros differ from traditional board games like Monopoly or Risk in a number of respects: Luck is less of a factor; when included, it tends to be used differently. The games tend to play more quickly and have rules that keep them from going on indefinitely. Players all participate until the end of the game, rather than being eliminated along the way. Player interaction is typically indirect rather than combative. Victory is often not a matter of achieving one specific objective, but instead a matter of accruing victory points.

** There are actually two ways of gaining victory points in Settlers that depend on prior events (Longest Road and Largest Army). So perhaps it has the same problem as Puerto Rico. The difference is that in Puerto Rico every player will have a large number of victory points from prior events (shipping).

*** How did this end up being a post about natural kinds?!?


from: Chris Bateman

Sat 09 Oct 2010 04:09 PM

P.D.: You've missed an important part of Suits' approach, which is that the institution of the game *can* be considered apart from the play of the game. Suits uses the example of the knight in chess (p45 in my copy) - the institution of chess allows you to recognise the knight as a knight outside of the play of a game of chess. So too the victory point tokens in Puerta Rico get their meaning from the institution of Puerta Rico and are permissible for determining its prelusory goal.

However, I wish to make the point that Suits' system, while applicable in a very wide context, is better suited to interpreting sports and less useful for many other kinds of games, because of the focus on inefficiency. The prelusory goal construal has its value in connection with this element of inefficiency; when one isn't concerned about the inefficiency aspect (which we're surely not in the case of a hobby game like Puerta Rico) the prelusory goal makes little contribution. Your critique here seems to be gesturing at this problem.

I prefer Caillios' general approach to games, but his work lacks Suits' philosophical precision and rigour. Suits seems to have felt Caillois cast his net too wide - but it is precisely the wider net that I like about Caillois' approach. I have interbred these to some extent in the book I'm currently working on.

Best wishes!

from: P.D.

Sat 09 Oct 2010 09:17 PM

Chris: I confess that I find the appeal to institutions a rather weak moment in Suits' argument. Surely Puerto Rico was a game when it was first devised and playtested, before there was any institution associated with the game.